With the light patter of rain on the awning outside, I stole an afternoon nap on the living room couch. It was a quick one, fifteen minutes or so. When I woke, the rhythms outside had shifted. A gust of wind sang through the slits of the awning instead. I didn’t realize it yet, but it was the sound of winter finally coming.
I’m not as intuitively tuned into such sounds, such rhythms, as I’d like to be, but my subconscious seems to be working on that level today because Linda Hogan’s book Dwellings has challenged me to do so. There is, Hogan contends, a way of looking at the world that’s different than the way most of us are accustomed to. Since I’m exploring books that explore places, I thought it would be useful to have Hogan help me see place in a different way.
Hogan, a Chickasaw poet and a Pulitzer-nominated novelist, subtitled Dwellings “A spiritual history of the living world.” It is a deeply contemplative book grounded in the human connection with the natural world—a connection, Hogan suggests, that’s in extreme crisis.
“I question our responsibilities of the caretaking of the future and to the other species who share our journeys,” Hogan writes. “These writings have grown out of those questions, out of wondering what makes us human, out of a lifelong love for the living world and all its inhabitants.”
One might be tempted to dismiss Hogan’s work as almost shamanistic in tone, but to do so would kind of prove her point: current ways of looking at the world are limiting and, unfortunately, destructive. Hogan challenges readers to open up to something broader. “I can only think that there is another force at work,” she says, “deeper than physics and what we know of wind, something that comes from a world where lighting and thunder, sun and rain clouds live.” It is possible, she adds, “to wind a way backwards to the start of things, and in so doing find a form of sacred reason, different from ordinary reason, that is linked to forces of nature.”
Hogan constructs her book as a series of personal essays that, together, create a larger view. The essays contain varying degrees of memoir, and she grounds each one in a particular place. For instance:
Evening arrives at the mouth of the cave and the land turns blue. A soft mist is raining, the kind some call a female rain. Clouds rise up from where it touches ground. A creek moves through this place; it smells of iron and tastes of earth’s blood. The land is open, receptive, and it is very young in terms of geological age, having just begin to move and shift. The elements of earth are patient and take their time to grow and collapse.
But she’s not just interested in the place itself, in its natural beauty or history. She’s interested in what place means, and what our connection is to it. To explore that questions, she springboards into spirituality, science, and ethics. She draws the writings of astrophysicists, biologists, naturalists, poets, artists, and tribal elders into conversation. She evokes mythology, legend, and folklore. She creates from her source material, much like Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World, a beautifully thoughtful mosaic.
“To see the whole is to see all the parts of the puzzle, some of which have not even been found,” she concedes. That can pose a challenge to the mind that demands closure, that demands linear narrative, that demands order.
The natural world operates differently, she says. “To sit with the eagles and their flutelike songs, listening to the longer flute of wind sweep through the lush grasslands, is to begin to know the natural laws that exist apart from our own written ones,” she says.
She urges readers to see and understand the cyclical nature of things. In every end, there is a beginning. In every death, there is life, and in every life there is death. We can understand a place by tuning into its rhythms.
Such rhythms transcend language. They have—they are—a language of their own. She quotes John Hay’s The Immortal Wilderness: “There are occasions when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth, in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the undercurrents of the soil, but you have to be willing to wait and received.”
It’s increasingly difficult for us to wait and receive. We have removed ourselves too far from nature. “The Lakota knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard,” says Luther Standing Bear in a quote Hogan passes along; “he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too.”
Dwellings sometimes feels like a lament. There is woe in the world, and Hogan is grieved by it. She does not preach, however, and she avoids melodrama without shying away from the sad, unfortunate realities of the world. Her writing alone is enough to convince a reader that there’s still plenty of beauty in the world. She offers perfectly illustrative anecdotes, although her use of metaphor and personification are perhaps her greatest weapons.
The clay jar that serves as a “reminder of how water and earth love each other the way they do”…trees that lean so close they might be whispering their innermost secrets…the wind that “carried a tale of splitting , of atomic fusion” at Chernobyl, revealing the truth of the situation when the Russian authorities wouldn’t.
Many of the other works I’ve read so far have addressed the same questions Hogan tackles: What is our place in the world and what are we doing about it? However, Hogan offers the richest exploration of those questions because of her willingness to tackle them on not only an intellectual level but on a spiritual level. She’s also the first to really—almost plaintively—insist on asking What does it mean?
“I know only that there are simple powers, strange and real,” she says. They defy human understanding, yet they are within human capacity to see, feel, experience. Only by tuning into those rhythms can we truly recognize our place.